We seem to love problem solving so much we make the mistake of jumping straight into brainstorming, as if the first step to problem solving is finding solutions. It’s not. A critical step that comes before that is gaining a deeper understanding of the nature of the problem itself.

We need to make sure we have the right ‘problem statement’ – how the problem is framed will influence the solutions that are presented, and will therefore influence potential innovation. For some compelling examples of how reframing problems offers their solution, watch Roy Rosin’s (Chief Innovation Officer at the University of Pennsylvania Medicine) TED talk on the subject.

‘Judge a person by their questions rather than their answers.’ Voltaire.

One of the most effective ways to reframe a problem yourself is to ask questions that help you challenge your assumptions about the problem. A well-placed question will help you examine what you think you know and reframe the problem. Even the simple questions such as ‘why’ or ‘what if’ can be the first step towards innovation.

Einstein said ‘If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask.’ So, to enhance your creativity when working on a challenge, before you offer any solutions, spend more time asking questions that will give you a better understanding of the nature of your problem.

You can try this with a particular challenge you have right now.

1:  Think of a problem you would like to solve. Anything that begins with ‘How can I…?’ is a good place to start. It could be ‘How can I double my sales?’ ‘How can I communicate something better?’, ‘How can I improve a specific process?’, or ‘How can I get better balance in my life?’.

2:  Spend at least 10 minutes only coming up with questions. Ask as many questions as you can, and try to make them open, and as searching as possible. Write all the questions down.

For example, if you were working on a business-related problem you might come up with questions like:

  • What will define success?
  • How will I know Ive solved the problem?
  • What would the benefits be if I solved the problem?
  • What would happen if I did nothing?
  • What would I do if I had twice (or half) the budget?
  • What would I do if I had more (or less) time?
  • What adive would I give someone else?
  • What has worked in the past and what hasn’t worked?
  • What would someone who knows more about this than me suggest?
  • What would make this easy?
  • What would make the problem worse?

Don’t answer any of the questions! This may be harder than it might seem – avoid answering questions entirely at this stage.

3:  When you’re done, go through all the questions and highlight, or answer, any that you feel are particularly useful. You’ll probably notice that some questions offer fresh insight to your problem.

This simple process will help you understand your problem in a new light and with fresh perspective. Consequently you will be better placed to create an effective solution.

3 point review:

  • Problem solving follows a process, and questions come before solutions.
  • Asking questions helps you reframe problems, challenge your assumptions and find new perspectives on a problem.
  • When you have a challenge or need to solve a problem, before you begin brainstorming solutions, spend 10 minutes just asking questions.
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